Boutique Hotels, Floods, Fires, and the Scramble for What’s Left

Like I’ve said, as Americans we are united in our compulsion to hustle for income in whatever way we can. For many, the option to generate funds via airbnb is a no-brainer. In my little wild west town of Altadena, CA I see there are currently over 140 short-term rentals available. My husband and I have a “carriage house” behind our 1926 Janes Cottage that, with a little love to the tune of 10 – 12 K, could shake our own moneymaker.

But, it’s like the true environmentalists say to the mammal-eaters: you can’t call yourself an environmentalist if you partake in red meat. I couldn’t call myself an affordable housing advocate if I became a supplier of short-term rentals. If we ever do soup up the carriage house it will be so someone can call it home.

I recently commented to Rabbi Jonathan Klein, the leader of CLUE-LA, that organizing for affordable housing is like wrestling an octopus. There are so many subheadings of affordable housing advocacy (from countering municipal efforts to criminalize homelessness to dried-up public funding to airbnb and elite hotel developments decimating an already inadequate affordable housing stock . . . the list goes on), and our quickly changing world is ratcheting up the pressure on all of them.

I told the Rabbi that the need for affordable housing is so acute that perhaps it could unite activists in a large urban area like LA County. With enough people organized we could pin that octopus.

In the latest match in Pasadena, the octopus won handily. Last week, the City Council unanimously voted to move ahead with the huge Kimpton Hotel project that will turn the historic YWCA building adjacent to City Hall into a 179-room luxury boutique hotel. The project involves adding an entirely new building, permanently altering the prominent view of the Jackie Robinson statues.

This week local activists are shaking their heads in regret around the lack of organized opposition that led to this loss. The environmentalists dissented en masse but it wasn’t enough – killing this vote required the cooperation of a gaggle of activist coalitions, too many of which operate in silos (the workers’ rights, environmental, and affordable housing activists all needed to link arms on this one).

It is a loss of several things: it could have been a wonderful affordable housing project (in fact, it might be illegal in CA to have usurped this surplus property to a private corporation before making it available for affordable housing – the matter is being studied and may result in a law suit); the deal could have negotiated labor peace (good jobs) for its workers instead of more crappy low-wage ones (and these new workers will also have to somehow find an affordable place to live in or near Pasadena – buena suerte!); it is a loss of green space; it is a further loss of the soul of a Pasadena that once valued socio-economic diversity. How fitting that the Robinson statues will be eclipsed by this monstrosity.

The City Council seems insatiable in its fervor for more hotels and elite accommodations in Pasadena. And yet, part of our quickly changing world includes vast numbers of people who suddenly find themselves homeless, be that a result of flood or fire. The contrast is stunning: droves of devastated lives in Louisiana and parts of CA and the Pasadena City Council gleefully voting in a boutique hotel project in a building that used to serve the common good values for which the YW/MCA is known. This should not compute.

None of us are immune to the hustle for dollarage – one reason airbnb has been such a boon is because home-owners are strapped for cash, and many are enabled to keep their house and their toe-hold in the middle class by offering short-term rentals. While I don’t begrudge their predicament, I can’t help but look at the bigger picture here.

As resources become more scarce in a climate-change world (are literally rotted to the ground or burned up), there is a mass “scramble for what’s left” because most people are not of the elite class.  But the elite sure are taking up a lot of space.

Until next time, Do the Hustle!

– Rev. Hannah hustlin’ Hope! Petrie

6 thoughts on “Boutique Hotels, Floods, Fires, and the Scramble for What’s Left”

  1. This is sad. As if we don’t have enough tourists already in Pasadena. Or could the city be scrambling to build attendance of the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade back up? If so, then what happens with these proposed tourist accommodations the rest of the year? Like you said, it seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

    1. Totally agree. Julia Morgan designed this place as an affordable shelter for low income women, not a boutique for the elite. True preservationists should take this historical fact to heart, and work to preserve the moral character of our city. Thanks for reminding us to hustle for justice, sister!

  2. Hannah, thanks for this excellent piece! You captured so well some of the issues of this Kimpton Hotel concerns and complexities of affordable housing with you octopus image. Thank you! I plan to repost this on my blog and FB page. The night this decision was made, I was at the City Council. During public comment a sweet disabled African American woman come to the podium to ask for help for housing after exhausting all the options. I was struck by her sincerity, especially when the City later in the meeting quickly glided over the how the original use of the YWCA land–which was housing for low income women–was no longer a need. It could be declared now for a new use. What kind of research was done to show this was no longer a need? Much of the disussion that evening was about the city recouping their costs, the eight million that the city spent on purchasing this land through eminent domain. The hotel needed enough rooms to make it all pencil out. And this would help pay the retirement of police and fire–100 in Pasadena of which receive six figure annual incomes. This is the same reasoning that the city had years ago when they were able to pass a state law that applied only to Pasadena, a law that allowed the 20% set aside of Redevelopment Funds for affordable housing to be diverted into the retirements of police and fire. We have lost land and hundered of millions of dollars that were to be for affordable housing in Pasadena and we wonder why we cant afford to build enough housing for those of lower income.

  3. I totally agree about the Kimpton Hotel disaster. But I think Airbnb is a more nuanced issue. I am about to take a trip to Spain and have booked into 6 different Airbnb places. Each time it is a private room in someone’s home. Most of these are likely not viable as long-term rentals, certainly not for families. I just checked for Altadena listings and found that over 300 listings were for a “private room” or a “shared room.” How is this more objectionable than privately-owned homes with 4+ bedrooms occupied by one couple? I know people who would not be able to stay in their own homes without renting out rooms. Having a long-term roommate is a much more difficult proposition socially than short term rentals. And short-term rentals involve a lot more labor – thereby employing people who might otherwise lack jobs/resources. The problem is that we live in a society engulfed in a culture (and economy) of private property mediated by money. This is a systemic issue. Housing justice is impossible to achieve other than in a society where distribution is based on need and mediated by mutual cooperation and concern.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the nuance Bonnie! GPAHG, Greater Pasadena Housing Group, is studying this issue with the help of a graduate student. It is indeed complex.

    2. I agree that Airbnb is complex and nuanced. My husband and I have used it on several occasions, always staying in an extra bedroom of someone’s home. We’re barely middle-class, which means barely making it in LA’s economy. Airbnb has allowed us to travel and stay in comfortable environs, while also meeting interesting people. Maybe if the housing market weren’t so tight in LA, we’d be able to pay less for where we’d like to live and then stay in non-airbnb motels and hotels, thus contributing to and supporting hospitality workers.

      (For the record, I’m a hardcore lefty! I care deeply about affordable housing. 🙂 )

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